2017-08-10 / Editorial

A tale of two dresses

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By Leslie Rounds

Sometime before her death in 1919, Susan Ellen Hathorn (later known as Hawthorn) Flitner sat down and wrote a note that she carefully pinned inside of her beautiful royal blue dress. “This dress made for me when I lived at 28 Beacon St., Boston, in spring of 1875. I leave it for Brother to be kept in the family and never to be cut or changed in any way.” The note seems to have been very successful. Susan’s gown is on exhibit at the Saco Museum, one of 50 dresses from five institutions in Maine and New Hampshire that are part of “Embellishments in Victorian Fashion.”

Susan must have remembered that time in her life as one of the happiest, full of promise for the future. Born in Richmond, Maine in 1841, to Seth Hathorn and Hannah Colburn, she had only one living sibling, her older brother, John. In 1844, the little family suffered a huge loss when Seth died at the age of just 25. Hannah moved in with her mother-in-law and the family lived off Seth’s small estate. In 1851, Hannah, too, passed away. Susan and John now moved in with their Colburn relatives. Susan’s future husband was living just a town away in Richmond, Maine. How they met is unknown, but in 1869 Susan married Francis Flitner in Boston. He was a successful merchant, well enough off that Susan could afford to have a stylish silk taffeta dress made for her that spared none of the popular bells and whistles of that highly ornamental fashion era. Susan must have had many gowns; this one seems to have been barely worn and remains in near perfect condition. The couple never had children, so that in later years Susan could only pass the dress on to her elderly brother who then died three years before her. By that time of his death, Susan was suffering from dementia but her brother, who was living in California and also had no children, seems to have respected her request and sent the dress back east to someone who could keep it safe. The dress that Susan so cherished was carefully preserved and passed down through a distant Colburn cousin’s family – people who may never have known her – until it was donated to the Saco Museum in 2004.

Maud S. Andrews was born in 1872 in her father’s South Street home in Biddeford, where she also grew up. In 1899, she became Dr. Roscoe S. Graves’ second wife. It was he who had signed the death certificate for his young first wife, Kate Tarbox, in 1895 and recorded her cause of death as “phthisis florida,” which in the language of the time meant “galloping consumption” or tuberculosis that developed (and killed) very rapidly. When 26-year-old Maud married the 40-year-old physician, she became mother to Kate’s 8-yearold daughter. For the occasion, Maud wore a cream colored silk dress printed with lilac colored flowers. Deep purple velvet ribbons adorned the bodice, skirt and sleeves and a central lace panel on the front added even more decoration. Since (like many wedding dresses of the time) Maud’s gown was practical enough for everyday outings, she probably wore it quite a few more times before she carefully folded it away. The family settled at 62 Pleasant St. in Saco. Maud gave birth to two daughters and three sons, but her younger daughter died at the age of seven. Her older daughter, Bernice, became a librarian and eventually also married a physician. Near the end of her life, she donated her mother’s wedding dress to the Saco Museum.

Not all dresses can tell such interesting stories, but many of the clothes that are preserved do come with information about who made them or who wore them, or why these particular outfits became the rare survivors. Please come in and take a look; this is an especially large and compelling exhibition of gorgeous clothing and it’s only on exhibit until Aug. 27.

Leslie Rounds is executive director of Dyer Library/Saco Museum.

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